Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration is preparing to place state inmates in a private prison in Lee County four years after former Gov. Steve Beshear decided to end Kentucky’s use of for-profit lockup.
On Tuesday, the state awarded a contract to the Louisville law firm of Wyatt Tarrant and Combs to “assist in drafting and finalizing a complex contract for operation of a private prison in Lee County, to accommodate prisoners in state custody due to serious overcrowding problems at existing state correctional facilities.”
Afterward, the law firm will help draw up contracts for private prison use at closed prisons elsewhere in Kentucky, according to the contract. The contract, not to exceed $30,000, runs from May 8 through June 30, 2018.
One Eastern Kentucky lawmaker said she opposes a return to private prisons.
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For-profit companies traditionally spend less than the government does on correctional officers; inmate food and health care; and educational, vocational and addiction treatment programs for inmates, said state Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“At some point we have to decide if we’re really in the business of corrections of if we’re just warehousing people,” Webb said. “There are good reasons why we quit using these places, why the federal government quit using these places. State prisoners are a responsibility that should be overseen by the state, not handed off to someone else.”
Although lawyers have been hired, nothing about the prisons has been finalized, said Mike Wynn, spokesman for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which oversees the state Department of Corrections.
“Corrections is still reviewing their options with regard to private prisons, but no final decisions have been made yet,” Wynn said. “The (law) firm is helping us determine the best contract vehicle – and the best policy safeguards to prevent issues of the past — should we pursue an option on private prisons.”
In 2013, Kentucky ended its use of several prisons owned and operated by Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America because of allegations of inmate abuse and mistreatment, and other problems.
CCA’s Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, which has a capacity of 816 beds, was one of those prisons. Inmates rioted at the prison in 2004, and the state levied a $10,000 fine against CCA, saying the company failed to adequately respond to the riot.
CCA last year changed its name to CoreCivic. Over the past two years, the company’s political action committee has given at least $7,000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky and at least $4,500 to the Kentucky Democratic Party.
“We’re always interested in discussing ways CoreCivic can provide solutions to the challenges governments face,” company spokesman Jonathan Burns said Thursday. “We stand ready to work with the state of Kentucky to address the unique needs of its correctional population.”
Despite attempts by the General Assembly to reduce Kentucky’s explosive prison growth, in part by steering nonviolent drug addicts toward treatment rather than incarceration, 10 of the state’s 12 prisons are overcrowded, as are many local jails that hold state inmates either awaiting trial or serving time for lesser felonies. On average, local jails are at 120 percent of their maximum capacity, according to a legislative research report issued in November.
Kentucky’s state prisons held 12,084 inmates this week, with 11,414 more held at local jails and 438 living in halfway houses, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections.